Where Elite:Dangerous Burns Out

This week, I mostly played Elite: Dangerous.  (Granted, I worked a full time schedule, so I didn't have a whole lot of time to play anything.)  Yet, I find myself a bit disappointed in what I have to look forward to in the latter half of the game.

The main problem comes down to weapon balance.  If I compare the damage per second as measured by the players on an April 2015 forum thread with the actual cost of the weapons and the difficulty of mounting them on ships, what arrive at is the conclusions that the power balance tapers off heavily in the latter part of the game.
The reason is because of how damage scales relative to price in the weapons.  For example, a class 1 ("small") gimble-mounted beam laser would cost around 75,000 credits and do 8.7 DPS, but a class 3 ("large") gimble-mounted beam laser costs around 2,400,000 credits and does 24 DPS.   So you end up paying 32 times the cost of the weapon for less than 3 times the damage.

If I look at the weapon mounts on an Imperial Clipper, there are only four hardpoints, two "medium" mounts and two "large" mounts.  In terms of DPS, there is a potential for twice as much damage as a Cobra Mk III's two "small" and two "medium" hardpoints.  Yet, the Clipper hull costs nearly 60 times more, has only twice the shielding as the Cobra, and is much easier to hit due to its size.

Perhaps the Imperial Clipper's mere 4 hardpoints is an overly extreme example.  Lets take the most heavily armed craft the players can currently pilot, the Anaconda, costing over 6 Imperial Clippers.  The Anaconda hardpoints are 1 huge, 3 large, 2 medium, and 2 small.  Thanks to the weapon balance, those 8 hardpoints are not as relevant as the cost would suggest.

The advantage of the smaller ships is further reinforced by weapon mount types.  A fixed beam laser is one of the deadliest things in the game, a class 3 does around 30 DPS, but it only fires straight forward, which makes it significantly less useful on a large, cumbersome ship like the Anaconda.  So you mount a turreted version, costing severalfold more credits... and it does less than 15 DPS!  Well, that's fair enough, you don't have to aim the turreted version, so it works out to about the same credit cost, right?  Wrong: the weaker, turreted version of the weapons cost nearly 20 times more than the more powerful (but harder to hit with) aimed versions.  So getting a larger, more cumbersome ship carries a compound cost to outfit it.

In some ways, I rather like this "level playing field" balance that puts a player in an Anaconda at not too much of an advantage versus a player in a Cobra  Mk III.  What is bothers me is that it seems like the longer I play, the harder I will have to struggle to make progress.  The credit costs skyrocket for less and less benefit.  Compounding this are the insurance costs that make it so, the bigger and better the ship I am piloting, the more credits I have to fork out to replace it.  It is a pretty unsatisfying balance overall.

My inner power gamer concludes that there is little reason to upgrade your ship past a certain point.  A frugal player might as well just kit out a bunch of cheaper hulls for each role, switching between them for the variety of activities.  I have a pretty good chance at killing an Anaconda with a tricked out Vulture heavy fighter that would cost a hundred times less, so why buy an Anaconda at all?  The prestige; you buy big ships just to say you have collected and flown them.  This is sort of a problem because, for more practical players, it robs Elite:Dangerous of the main impetus to play: if you're not there to earn credits to get bigger and badder ships, then why play?
Well, there is something they added in version 1.3 called PowerPlay, where you can pledge yourself to one of ten rulers and then engage in (largely profitless) activities that make numbers go up to potentially put the rulers in charge.  As different rulers impose a different set of rules on the solar systems under their control, changing ownership is a means to change the shape of the universe.  It looks great on paper, because player involvement that shapes universes is what games like this really need.  Unfortunately, in practice, it's too much of a grind; the PowerPlay activities are repetitious and lack adequate variety for the expected time investment by the players.

Times like this, I see why I ended up spending so much time in Minecraft.  I can vividly remember most of the adventures I have had in Minecraft because I had such an impact on the game world, permanently depleting resources as I delved into massive caves, then taking those resources and putting them towards great projects of whatever I wanted to build... well, so long as it was made out of blocks.  In Elite:Dangerous, I hardly care about mining asteroids, blowing up enemy ships, or docking with space stations, because each instance of these activities hardly differentiate from another of the same.  Thus, the only things that noticeably changes as a result of my efforts are my ship and my credit balance.  

Maybe Notch has spoiled me, or maybe Braben really needs to step up his virtual world savviness.   Maybe all this finicky bloviating over Braben and Notch's differences in game philosophy reminds me that, if I want to do the job "right," I should probably stop wasting time playing games and get back to trying to make them.


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